Thursday, October 09, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Wayne Zurl

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Wayne Zurl
with Wayne Zurl

We are delighted to welcome novelist Wayne Zurl to Omnimystery News today.

Wayne's new mystery featuring a retired New York detective turned Tennessee police chief is Pigeon River Blues (Iconic Publishing; May 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to catch up with the author to talk more about his books.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the recurring characters in your Sam Jenkins mysteries. What is it about them that appeals to you as a writer?

Wayne Zurl
Photo provided courtesy of
Wayne Zurl

Wayne Zurl: The main character in all my mysteries is Sam Jenkins, a former New York detective lieutenant who, after years of retirement, begins a second career as police chief in Prospect, Tennessee, a small touristy city in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Sam is supported by Sergeants Bettye Lambert who Sam calls the most beautiful desk sergeant on the planet, Stan Rose, a former LAPD officer who followed his wife back to her home town and joined Prospect PD, and Sam's wife Kate who's spent many years acting as Sam's Dr. Watson. Other regulars not usually associated as friends of your average policeman are FBI Special Agent Ralph Oliveri and TV reporter Rachel Williamson who often factor into Sam's investigations.

I've got three pensions coming in to pay the bills and keep me out of debtor's prison, so I don't need royalty money to keep my happy home afloat. On the other hand, my ego (somewhat like Sam Jenkins') is just a bit smaller than South Dakota and I need to see stories and characters I like before I'll put my signature on the bottom line. I try to make these regular cast members authentic to their occupation and people readers want to know more about. If I felt ambivalent about any one, I'd lose interest in them and they would fade from the cast. So far, I even like most of the bad guys and feel sorry when they go down the tubes. Every story needs an extra spark of evil to make the good guys real heroes.

OMN: As you get further along in the series, how have these characters developed or changed?

WZ: The ensemble cast of regulars at Prospect PD include not only those already mentioned, but ten more police officers, a few additional federal agents from nearby Knoxville, the mayor and other members of city government, and even townspeople who, because it's a small place, can't help being tripped over in more than one story. Just as in life, everyone evolves and readers learn more about them each time they appear. Back-story is fun to write in series mysteries, but you can't inundate a reader with a total biography each time an important character is introduced. So, through some of Sam's first person narration or more likely from within the dialogue, we discover more of what motivates a character, what their former life was like, or how they relate to fellow cast members.

Take Sam, for instance. He began his role of police chief with a former big town cop's attitude. But in only a short time, he learned that the officers in a rural Appalachian city, something no larger than a New York incorporated village, can do a pretty fair job of policing. His new colleague at the FBI field office is a lot easier to get along with than he expected, and Rachel Williamson is nothing like the reporters he used to bump heads with back in the shadow of the Big Apple.

OMN: Into which mystery subgenre would you place the books in this series?

WZ: Generally, the series should be looked at as police procedural whodunits staying just a little south of old-fashioned hardboiled. However, my second novel, A Leprechaun's Lament had the elements of a thriller.

While trying to peddle my first novel (A New Prospect) to agents and traditional publishers I learned that calling it a simple mystery was using the wrong handle. A "book doctor" advised me to push it as a police procedural and I'd get more latitude to stray from the template expected by the publishing world. I didn't care if I called a dog a cat, as long as I could find someone to take a chance on me and Sam Jenkins.

These books and stories sometimes don't offer the reader a dead body by page 3, as many publishers want in a mystery. The secondary problems leading up to the major crime or story-worthy problem allows the reader to meet new characters — potential victims, bad guys or secondary antagonists, and ancillary characters. A former police commissioner who I worked for once addressed a graduating police academy class and deemphasized the aspect of a cop's role as one who made arrests to prove his/her worth. He said we were in the people business. A cop's job is to protect and serve and like it or not when an irate citizen says they pay our salary, it's true. So, my books are character (people) driven. Plots are plots. There are just so many. You can use a basic or complex or even a convoluted plot, but people make the world go around. Prospect has its share of quirky characters that, I hope, keep the stories interesting.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

WZ: To paraphrase Jack Webb's weekly statement on the old TV show Dragnet, the story you've just seen is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty … and keep me out of civil court.

More of an explanation: All cops who work in a crowded and busy area retire with a large collection of war stories. I'm no different. While writing, I take an actual incident or two, fictionalize it, embellish it (real police work is not always a thrill a minute) and transplant it from New York to Tennessee. All of my early books and stories and 90% of the later work come from cases I investigated, supervised, or just knew a lot about. Compositing cases and vignettes works well because it allows me to add the necessary elements a publisher demands to create good fiction from the reality which isn't always as tense or conflicting as make-believe.

Utilizing a protagonist who speaks like me and might react to any given situation as I would, after more than twenty years of experience, makes the character easy to write. All the recipe needs are a few well placed incidents of him making mistakes, placing himself in jeopardy where an experienced cop might not. That adds to the tension used in mysteries since the beginning of time. I like to see a case pulled off without a hitch; sort of an investigative masterpiece, coppish artwork, but I'm in the minority of readers. To most people, perfect is boring.

"Knowing" and being able to "hear" the supporting characters (people I've actually met,) helps me write the dialogue because I know their voice and delivery. I hate stilted or unrealistic dialogue and work hard to allow you to read exactly what you'd really hear in the real world.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

WZ: Writing is fun. Outlining is too much like work. When I formulate an idea, I grab a pen and pad and just go with it. As I rough out the story and do the embellishments I spoke of, I filter in some humorous vignettes and/or add a quirky character who may have not been present in the actual incident, but who adds something interesting to the final product. With a complete first draft, I'll go back and flesh out the text with descriptions or other additions that polish a story. When I think I've got a complete piece, I go back chapter for chapter and create a timeline so I don't make mistakes and write Tuesday coming after Wednesday. I also keep an informal folder on each regular character to make sure Stan Rose is always six-foot-four inches, Bettye is always the mother of two girls and a boy, Ralph is always from South Ozone Park, etc. Details are important.

OMN: When you need to expand your storylines beyond what you already know or have already experienced, how do you go about researching the needed plot points?

WZ: Most of the detail or technical data I use in relation to police work comes from first-hand knowledge, even though it may be dated. Sam Jenkins (like me) is a dinosaur. He does things the old way; as he learned back in the 1970s. If I need up-to-date scientific procedural information, I call a friend who works as a crime scene investigator at the local sheriff's office. If I need to sprinkle in a few interesting historic facts about a place I'm mentioning or a group of people who live there, I'll use the Internet.

Recently I had a novelette published (The Swan Tattoo) about Malaysian organized crime in the southeast US. I got lots of practical information from an ethnic Chinese couple who lived in Malaysia and owned a Chinese restaurant for twenty-five years. Their input was invaluable. But I also spent a lot of time reading about the Malaysian triads who operate differently than the old-fashioned Chinese triads. That was fascinating reading.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of the books?

WZ: The fictional city of Prospect, Tennessee is set in the foothills of the Smokies, a few miles from the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surrounded by real places like Walland, Maryville, Rockford, and Townsend in Blount County and Seymour in Sevier County. Today, Prospect is a community within the Walland post office district, but originally it was settled in the late 18th century by recipients of Revolutionary War land grants. It never got a zip code and Prospect Road (mentioned in many stories) still remains, but it certainly does not have anything close to a traditional city center with a seat of government and its own police department. When I describe Prospect, I use a place much like Lynchburg in middle Tennessee and home of the Jack Daniels Distillery with its picturesque town square surrounded by dated but attractive commercial properties — a true Hometown, USA.

I try to afford the Smoky Mountain region its own character status much as Raymond Chandler did with Los Angeles or Tony Hillerman did with the Navajo land of northern Arizona and New Mexico.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world to research a setting — all expenses paid, of course! — where would it be?

WZ: Mystery writers often send their protagonists (accompanied by a sidekick or two) on trips where they get involved with a major crime that interrupts their vacation. I could use an all-expenses-paid salmon fishing trip to Alaska. I'd love to tell people how Sam Jenkins assisted the resident state trooper to learn if the wealthy tourist was killed by a rogue grizzly, a werewolf, for those paranormal fans, or just murdered by a psychotic killer with really long fingernails.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests?

WZ: This past summer I found myself very involved harvesting vegetables from our too large garden. And a constant pile of veggies calls for cooking marathons and an auxiliary freezer the size of a small travel trailer. When the garden isn't pushing me around, we travel a lot. I have an old restored boat that we use on the local lakes and rivers and we like to go "big water" fishing — to the Great Lakes and the salt water.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

WZ: The best positive advice came from reading an interview with Robert B. Parker. When asked why people like his books, he said, "Because they sound good." Writing so many things that were destined for audio books has taught me the necessity for stories not only to be well structured, but also smooth sounding. If ever asked to offer a single piece of advice to beginning writers I'll say, "When you think your story, novelette, novella, novel, or epic is finished, when you truly believe you've found and corrected all the typos and nits and it's ready to sell, go back and read it aloud to yourself. Pretend you're the star of your own audio book. Read it slowly and professionally as an actor would. Then, ask yourself, does it sound good? Do all the paragraphs smoothly transcend to the next? Does each sentence contain the right number of syllables? Does each word flow into the next without conflict? Does it have a pleasing rhythm? Basically, does it sing to you? For a guy who doesn't dance very well, I have a great need for rhythm in my writing. If you notice any "bumps," go back and rewrite it. Smooth everything out. If something bothers you now, it will annoy the dickens out of you in the future and someone else will probably notice it, too." Then hand it off to an editor or proofreader, whomever you can afford. Everyone needs a second pair of eyes on their work.

OMN: How did the title of Pigeon River Blues come about? And were you involved with the cover design?

WZ: Originally, I used the working title of Groundhog Day, the day upon which the story opens. But that sounded lackluster, focused on nothing, and was already used for a Bill Murray movie. My novelettes, A Murder in Knoxville and The Great Smoky Mountain Bank Job, are consistent bestsellers on the publisher's site. Perhaps it has something to do with the regionally specific titles. So, I chose Pigeon River Blues because Dollywood is situated near a branch of the river in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I hope it clicks with the more than nine-million tourists who visit the Smokies each year.

The story is centered around death threats made to and the attempted murder of a famous and beautiful country singer. When asked for my idea for the cover, I suggested a singer holding a microphone, standing in a spotlight — it's a scene that takes place in one of the music halls at Dollywood. I thought superimposing the crosshairs and reticle of a telescopic rifle sight over the picture of the woman would imply the idea of the story and convey a sense of tension and urgency. Cover artist Tirzah Goodwin took that idea and came up with a great finished product.

OMN: Suppose your series were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing Sam Jenkins?

WZ: Sam Jenkins is over sixty, six-feet tall and 180 pounds, with mostly gray hair, and he'd like to believe still attractive to the ladies. Based on the character he portrays in the Jesse Stone TV movies and as the New York City police commissioner in the series Blue Bloods, Tom Selleck has the proper personality, but he's too tall. I'm sure Mark Harmon could lose the Jethro Gibbs USMC haircut, be a little more humorous, and he'd do a great job as Sam Jenkins.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

WZ: I read a lot as a kid — biographies and tons of historical fiction — David Crockett, Daniel Boone, Robert Rogers, and all sorts of characters from the 19th century American west. Kenneth Roberts' novel Northwest Passage was a particular favorite, although a bit dark for a boy. But I loved the story and its main character Major Robert Rogers provided a great influence over me in later years. That reading tradition carried on into adulthood when I read a lot about Benedict Arnold and other Revolutionary War personalities and all the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell and others — until someone gave me a copy of James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues. That started me on something I never did as a working cop — reading police and PI mysteries. Writers like Robert B. Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, James Lee Burks, Philip Kerr, Raymond Chandler, and that other guy from Long Island who also writes mysteries, Nelson DeMille, all influenced the way I write the Sam Jenkins mysteries.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

WZ: Okay, here's a combination of two topics, my five favorite places and because eating is so important to me, the foods you can find there. In inverse order, they are:

5 — Michigan. This is a sleeper of a vacation spot. Most people look at me like I have two heads and say, "Who goes to Michigan?" Start down state in Dearborn with the Henry Ford Museum and Old Greenfield Village and go as far as you can on the Upper Peninsula with its towns and villages along the shore of Lake Superior. Along the way, stop around Grand Traverse Bay or the Lake Michigan shoreline on the Lower Peninsula which I call a blend of coastal New England and New York's Adirondacks. Great historic sites and fishing for Coho salmon, brown, steelhead, and lake trout can occupy your time. Eating the freshest walleye and whitefish and smoked fish can keep you busy and satisfied for a long time.

4 — The US southwest. My favorites: New Mexico, northern Arizona and southern Utah. Beautiful scenery, national and state parks and Mexican or Navajo food so good it can make your ears wiggle.

3 — Coastal Maine. It's what most people see when they picture a classic New England sea coast. The Acadia National Park is spectacular and do I have to mention the lobster? If ever near the touristy town of Bar Harbor, take the few minutes to drive about 9 miles to the nearby Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound for lobster boiled in seawater and buckets of fresh steamer clams.

1 and 2 are toss-ups and it depends on my mood who gets the top spot. Alaska and Scotland. For those who think Texas is big, remember that Alaska is twice that size. For a memorable trip, take a small boat (about 125 feet with 40 or 50 passengers) through the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Juneau. Or circumnavigate Prince William Sound and visit more glaciers than you thought existed and get up close and personal with oodles of orcas and humpback whales. The scenery is unequalled. Anchorage can claim more great restaurants than most places serving the freshest wild salmon, halibut and you name it.

We've been to the UK thirteen times and most often to Scotland. Why? Castles, Gardens, quaint villages and market towns, the music, the Highlands, the coasts … and sheep. They outnumber the people. And the Scots make the best grub in Great Britain; you should even try the haggis with tatties and neeps. Oh, yeah, don't forget to sample the local beers and single-malt whisky.

OMN: What's next for you?

WZ: Unfortunately, the publisher who has handled my full-length novels is going out of the traditional publishing business and I'm sitting here with two completed Sam Jenkins mysteries: A Touch of Morning Calm, a story about Korean organized crime in east Tennessee; and A Can of Worms, the sequel to Pigeon River Blues and a book where Sam Jenkins experiences more personal loss than any one character should be expected to endure over the span of 85,000 words. Once I finish the initial promotional push for Pigeon River Blues, I'll focus on finding a quality press to handle them.

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Wayne Zurl grew up on Long Island and retired after twenty years with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander supervising investigators. He is a graduate of SUNY, Empire State College and served on active duty in the US Army during the Vietnam War and later in the reserves. Zurl left New York to live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with his wife, Barbara.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Pigeon River Blues by Wayne Zurl

Pigeon River Blues
Wayne Zurl
A Sam Jenkins Mystery

When country singer C. J. Profitt returns home to sing on stage in Dollywood, Mayor Ronnie Shields asks Sam to babysit. It is anything but a simple job as C. J. can be her own worst enemy. But she isn't the only one as the Coalition for American Family Values isn't shy about letting her know she isn't welcome.

Sam breaks in John Gallagher, an old friend and new Police Operations Aide, on the job to help C. J. keep her Dollywood date and everyone starts learning a new language.

The past has a way of resurfacing in the present and enemies can come from very unexpected places. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)


  1. Hi Lance,
    Thanks for inviting me to spend some time with you and the readers at OMNIMYSTERY NEWS.
    All the best,

    1. It was a pleasure having the opportunity to talk with you about your book and series.


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